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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"


The Fredericksburg &
Northern Railroad

by C. F. Eckhardt

Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnel ,Texas today
The Fredericksburg and Northern Railway tunnel today.
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, November 2007

Though the Galveston, Harrisburg, & San Antonio Railroad built its last 23.5+ miles from Marion to San Antonio in 1877, the International & Great Northern completed its Austin Laredo line in 1881, passing through San Antonio, and the San Antonio & Aransas Pass completed its line from the Alamo City to the coast in 1886, the area to the north and west of San Antonio was without rail connection to the great hub of south Texas for several years. Prior to the War Between the States, it could take as much as ten days for wagon freight to reach such remote outposts as Fredericksburg or Kerrville from San Antonio and that was "barring mishap" (Indians). Even after the War, with much improved roads and a much lessened Indian problem, it still took freight wagons the better part of a week to travel from San Antonio to Fredericksburg. The San Antonio Fredericksburg stagecoach took two days-"barring mishap" (in this case, bandits) and there were few runs in which a "mishap" did not occur. The people north and west of San Antonio wanted and needed a railroad.

Unlike today, when railroads are being consolidated and tracks are being abandoned almost on a daily basis, from the 1870s until the 1940s railroads were the transportation lifeblood of the nation, both for passengers and freight. For a town to be missed by the rails was a death sentence. The list of towns, in Texas and elsewhere, that died because they had no railroad would fill a sizable book.

As early as 1880 a preliminary survey was made to find the most practicable rail line from San Antonio into the hill country to the northwest, and it was quickly discovered that there was a smooth, easy route to Kerrville but a very rough one to Fredericksburg. When the San Antonio & Aransas Pass announced, in 1886, that it would build a hill country branch, both Kerrville and Fredericksburg put in bids and Kerrville, having the triple advantages of easy grades, no high hills to cross, and Charles Schreiner; founder of the great YO ranch, on the railroad acquisition committee, won. The rails were laid into Comfort and then made an abrupt bend to the northwest. The first train rolled into Kerrville on October 6, 1887.

This disappointed not to say infuriated the good burghers of Fredericksburg. They sent a delegation to the San Antonio office of Uriah Lott, president of the SA&AP, to demand an explanation. Lott explained that the much rougher country from Comfort to Fredericksburg and the current financial condition of the SA&AP did not make it possible to build to Fredericksburg.

Uriah Lott

Uriah Lott
Photo courtesy The Kenedy Museum, Sarita, Texas

In 1886 Temple D. Smith, a Virginian and a banker by profession, came to Fredericksburg and organized the Bank of Fredericksburg. He immediately decided that the town needed, above all else, a railroad and he would devote most of the rest of his life to getting it one.

The first stab came in 1889 when a Llano lawyer, W. A. H. Miller, proposed to Smith and others in Fredericksburg that the towns of Fredericksburg and Llano, with the help of San Antonio, jointly finance the building of a grade from Comfortto Llano via Fredericksburg. The SA&AP would then lay track over the line and operate it as a branch. Fredericksburg actually financed and built 17 miles of graded roadbed going south, but it stopped at "the big hill" the range of hills that forms a sort of divide about one third of the way from Comfort to Fredericksburg, just north of the ghost town of Hillingdon. This divide is between the Guadalupe and Pedernales rivers. There simply was not enough money to complete the project, and it was dropped after $85,000 had been spent. (Pronounce that 'perd'n'alice' and you'll be understood in the Hill Country. Texans had a lot of fun out of Yankee newsmen trying to pronounce 'Pedernales' during the Lyndon Johnson presidency.)

The Fort Worth & Rio Grande, when it reached Brownwood in 1891, announced its intention to extend the line on to Brady and Menard and to add a southward branch to Fredericksburg. This raised hopes in the German city, but except for a little over a mile and a half of connecting track the FW&RG laid in Fort Worth itself in 1891--the company didn't build another mile of track until 1903, when it finally built into Brady. It would not reach Menard until 1911, at which point building farther south was a moot point.

In June of 1909 J. P. Nelson, a former director of the SA&AP, proposed to build the line from Comfort to Fredericksburg, using the 17 miles of grade previously completed. Though he did begin energetically, by the end of September he'd run completely out of money and had to ask to be released from the contract.

It was R. A. Love who finally got construction underway. He initially planned a route that would take the new road up easy grades to within eight miles of Kerrville before turning back to the northwest towards Fredericksburg. The city of Kerrville ably led by Charles Schriener, who had no love for Fredericksburg effectively blocked the use of this route, and a shorter but much rougher and much more expensive to construct route from Fredericksburg Junction, on the SA&AP tracks about four miles east of Comfort, almost due north through some very rough country, was finally chosen. The road was chartered as the San Antonio, Fredericksburg, & Northern Railroad on January 3, 1913. Chief construction engineer was Foster Crane, who had just come off the completion of the Medina Lake dam project, the first large artificial lake to be built in Texas.

The problem was "the hill." The watershed between the Guadalupe and the Pedernales is high and rugged, and the train, which couldn't be expected to climb a grade of more than about 2% a rise of 2 feet in every hundred feet couldn't make 'tanglefoot curve' type switchbacks to climb the range of hills because of right of way limitations. There were two choices, and both of them were bad: build the most ambitious railroad fill in the history of the world, or dig a hole.

Tunnel of the Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Marker
Tunnel of the Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Marker
Photo courtesy Sarah Reveley, 2007

Bankersmith, Texas - Train coming through Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnel
Coming through Fredericksburg and Northern R.R. Tunnel
Postcard circa1912 courtesy Will Beauchamp Collection

Waring Texas Depot painting
Waring Depot. Sketch by Jacinto Guevara
TE Photo, October 2007

The hole became the only railroad tunnel ever dug in Texas east of the Pecos River and south of the Panhandle. It was 920 feet long, dug and blasted through solid rock with only manpower, mule power, and dynamite. Today, if you follow FM 1376 from San Antonio to Sisterdale, then take FM 473 west and go beyond the road to Waring, you'll find where an old but still paved road forms (or used to form) a T intersection with 473. If you turn north and follow the road and the bed of Black Creek, you will be paralleling the route of the F&N, and just about the time you reach the ghost town of Hillingdon you'll see, crossing the creek, the remains of the F&N's longest trestle. Just north of that the road crosses almost directly over the top of it and there is an historical marker you'll find the hill country's only railroad tunnel.

The tunnel is still there, all 920 feet of it inhabited, in the fall, winter, and spring, by millions of bats. The bat flight from the tunnel at dusk resembles rising smoke. During late spring, summer, and early fall, it's home to more rattlesnakes than you'll ever want to meet in one place again.

Bats in Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnel
The light at the end of the tunnel...and about a million bats!
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, November 2007

Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnell. Texas old photo
The Fredericksburg and Northern Railway Tunnel
"I took this picture on one of our Sunday drives when I was a kid... My grandmother (standing at the entrance) told us kids there were bats in the tunnel, I high-tailed it out. The photo was taken about 1955, the tracks were removed in 1942."
- Sarah Reveley, October 2007

Bankersmith tunnel, 1952, Texas Railroads
"See I TOLD you my brother hightailed it outta thar when my grandfather told him there were bats in that tunnel!! He was 8 years old. p.s. Remember when little boys had big cuffs on their bluejeans because they grew so fast? Mamma wrote on the back "Sunday March 22, 1952 - tunnel at Bankersmith""
- Sarah Reveley

The initial estimate which proved fairly accurate was that 14,222 cubic yards of stone would have to be removed. Work began in April of 1913, and on July 15 the last foot of rock was blasted away. On August 26 the first train a construction train loaded with rails to lay the last few miles into Fredericksburg passed through. On October 28 the last rail was spiked down. Fredericksburg at last had a railroad.

Almost immediately the first of the real estate shapers who continue to plague the hill country moved in. The Mountain Townsite Company announced the acquisition of a large tract of land atop the hill through which the tunnel passed, and published plans for a "planned resort community" on a 300 acre tract with "possible expansion to as much as 1500 acres." Promised were an electric generating plant, a waterworks, and a sewer plant. A huge clubhouse containing 75 hotel rooms, each of which would have a private bathroom and sleeping porch, was to be built, as was an 18 hole golf course on a separate but adjacent 100 acre tract. Streets and boulevards the main street was to be called Berlin Boulevard were laid out, staked and superficially graded. Special excursion trains brought visitors to San Antonio to examine the "ideal place for your summer home." Mount Alamo, as the planned community was dubbed, was ballyhooed as the "Saratoga of Texas," a reference to the famous watering hole of the northeast, Saratoga Springs, New York. How many suckers bit the hook is not recorded, but the only work ever done at the "planned resort community" was grading some streets. Nothing, today, remains of Mount Alamo except the bare rocks of the hilltop and the cedars and liveoaks that grow there.

1940s Map of Gillespie, Blanco, and Kendall counties, Texas
1940s map showing Cain City, Bankersmith, Mt. Alamo, Hillingdon
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

The road originally passed through Cain City, about six miles from Fredericksburg. It was named for Charles Cain, a San Antonian who raised more money for the F&N than any other single person. South of Cain City it passed through Grapetown on Grape Creek, then through a community renamed Bankersmith after banker Temple Smith, whose unrelenting effort finally brought in the rails. It then passed Mount Alamo which never got off the ground and Hillingdon Station, a flagstop for the convenience of San Antonio architect Alfred Giles, whose summer home was at Hillingdon Ranch, to join the SA&AP tracks at Fredericksburg Junction, about a mile east of Comfort. Later a flagstop was added at Nichols Ranch, where what was probably the first dude ranch in the hill country was established.

A year later the road was in receivership. The reason, largely, was the tunnel, which had added $134,000 to the cost of building the road in a day when an ounce of gold sold for $12.50. During the rest of its existence, whether as the San Antonio, Fredericksburg, & Northern or later as the Fredericksburg & Northern, the railroad never made a penny for its investors.

Riding the F&N could be an adventure, and timetables were often something of a joke. During the winter icicles as much as a foot in diameter and six to ten feet long would form inside the tunnel from seeps in the rock, and the train crews had to stop and walk through the bore with axes to knock them down. Since there was no wooden shoring inside, no train proceeded directly through the tunnel, despite the old hill country story about the German farmer who watched daily as the train steamed up the grade from Black Creek and into the tunnel's mouth. Finally his sons gave way to curiosity and said "Papa, how come you alvays vatch dot train go in dot tunnel?" "Vell, poys," the old German replied, "Vun uf dese days it's boundt to happen. Dot t'ing's gonna miss dot hole."

In fact every train, northbound or southbound, stopped outside the tunnel. While the brakeman and flagman walked the length of the tunnel with pistols in their hands because of the rattlesnakes to check and see if large chunks of tunnel had fallen on the tracks, the conductor had all the windows in the coaches closed so the dense coal (later oil) smoke wouldn't get inside while the train went through the tunnel. Even at that, the pounding chug of a steam engine invariably brought a steady rain of small rocks down from the tunnel ceiling atop the coaches.

NOT the Fredericksburg and Northern Tunnel
Texas' "Other Railroad Tunnel" near Quitaque, Texas.
The highlight of the "Rails to Trails" trail about 8-10 miles S of Quitaque.

Photo courtesy Eric Blackwell (left) November 2006

In one of the earliest preserved timetables from 1916, after the line went into receivership yet again the SAF&N listed seven trains a week; first class (passengers only) on Sunday and second class (mixed train) the rest of the week. Nominal departure time from Fredericksburg for the second class train was 12:01 PM, for the first class, 2:00 PM. The second class train was due to reach Fredericksburg Junction a 2:15 PM, the first class to reach it at 4:10 PM. Departures from Fredericksburg Junction for the first class run were scheduled at 6:50 PM to reach Fredericksburg at 9:00 PM, and for the second class the same schedule. Not surprisingly, these were intended to correspond with the arrival times of SA&AP passenger and mixed trains going to and from San Antonio.

It didn't often work out that way. The F&N was never an on time line. Not only did the train have to stop to have the tunnel checked on every run, but the crew including the conductor and porters kept shotguns aboard except during deer season, when they kept rifles aboard. The sighting of rabbits, turkeys, doves, ducks on the creeks, or deer in season (and on occasion out of season) on or anywhere in range of the right of way usually resulted in an unscheduled stop while the crew shot Sunday's dinner. On occasion, especially when the black bass were biting in Grape or Black Creek, the locomotive crew would find it necessary to stop "to oil the bearings" or something similar about the time the train crossed one of the creeks. While the bearings got oiled fishing lines got wet, to cook some black bass on the heat of the boiler backhead. The bass would be done to a turn about the time the train pulled into Fredericksburg Junction.

When hunting and fishing didn't delay the train the condition of the roadbed often did. Since the F&N spent most of its existence in receivership to one group of creditors or another, roadbed maintenance was sporadic at best. Only parts of the line got rock ballast immediately upon construction, and much of the line never was ballasted with anything more firm than sand. Rains would wash out most of the ballast, leaving the rails and ties lying on wet, often somewhat spongy ground. Speeds of 2 or 3 mph under such conditions were the rule, and it could take ten hours or more to get to Fredericksburg from Fredericksburg Junction after a hill country thunderstorm. Since most of the early trestles on the line were of timber, washouts during rainy weather were common, and it was not unusual for the train to find itself stranded between two creeks, both trestles having been washed away in flash floods, the passengers and crew facing a long and muddy hike to the next station.

In the early 1920s a problem other than water struck the timber trestles. The big trestle over Black Creek just south of the tunnel caught fire and much of the center section burned. It was eventually replaced by the stone pier trestle that still stands today, one of the two remaining relics of the F&N.

The F&N had one good thing going for it if there was going to be a direct rail connection between San Antonio and the Panhandle, and a great many railroad men (and San Antonio and Panhandle businessmen as well) wanted one, the F&N had already bridged the greatest obstacle, the Guadalupe Pedernales divide. Until the rails reached the Cap Rock there was virtually nothing a train couldn't go around. A number of schemes were advanced to continue the F&N north into Menard, Eden, and San Angelo, to connect with roads already built into the Panhandle. While nothing ever came of the Menard to Fredericksburg connection, much of the rest of the planned line was eventually built.

The F&N issued its final timetable on September 3, 1929, advertising one northbound and one southbound train a day from Fredericksburg to the junction. By the late '30s the line's sole stockholder was Dr. O. H. Judkins of San Antonio. On July 25, 1942, the official documents that enabled Dr. Judkins to declare the road abandoned and offer it for scrap were approved by the War Production Board. In spite of last ditch efforts to save it, the hill country railroad was no more.

Portions of the steel rail were sold to the US Army to build sidings at military encampments across the country, and six carloads of rail eventually found their way to Australia to help build badly needed railroads there. Some of the timbers from the trestles were bought by Uncle Sam and became piers and abutments along the strategically important Alcan Highway.

Since the road was abandoned after Pearl Harbor, it didn't share the shame of companies like the Austin Transit Company, which sold much of its street rail to Japan in the 1930s, when it made the transition from streetcars to buses. American soldiers found, as reinforcements in the roofs of Japanese pillboxes and machine-gun and artillery bunkers on Guadalcanal and other Pacific islands, sections of light steel rail still bearing the mark "Austin Transit Co. Austin, Texas."

Only two real relics remain of the old F&N the Black Creek trestle and the tunnel. They are the last remnants of a dead era a time when the presence of a railroad brought life to a town and the lack of one killed it. Fredericksburg survived, thanks to roads built during the 1930s, but Cain City and Bankersmith are ghost towns, Grapetown isn't much better, and not even the graded streets are left at Mount Alamo.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"November 15, 2006 column

More Texas Railroads

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10619 Old San Antonio Rd.
Fredericksburg, TX 78624

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